The Curse of Chief Wahoo

Are we paying the price for embracing America's last acceptable racist symbol?

"I'm here for my grandchildren — for their self-esteem," says Marjorie Villafane, a Sioux from North Dakota who has lived in Cleveland for more than 40 years and has participated in the annual Opening Day protest of Chief Wahoo for the last 20.

"I'm here so my grandchildren can be proud of their heritage. People act like we're trying to take their baseball away from them, but we're not. It's just, why do they have to turn us into Chief Wahoo?"

Jim Farrar, a member of the Cherokee Nation who drove from Michigan to join this year's demonstration, speaks of re-education camps and smallpox-infested blankets — painful memories associated with the displacement of indigenous North Americans by European colonists. To Farrar and many protesters, Wahoo's exaggerated features and toothsome grin trivialize and mock their history.

"It isn't guilt that we want you to feel," he says. "Just understand what our opposition comes from."

In 1991, the Committee of 500 Years of Dignity and Resistance was formed in response to the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' arrival in the Western Hemisphere. Its purpose was to educate the public on "the truth about Columbus" from the perspective of Native Americans. Today, the Cleveland-based organization's focus is decidedly more narrow: They're committed to seeing Cleveland's Major League Baseball club drop the use of Chief Wahoo and its 97-year-old nickname.

It's not the most visible of movements, and it seeps into the public consciousness only for one afternoon each year. This time, a group of about 20 took part in the protest, marching outside Progressive Field and bellowing slogans like "Enjoy the Game, Change the Logo." Some placed pieces of Easter candy where arriving fans could find them; attached to each marshmallow Peep was one in a series of fortune-cookie messages: "Would Jesus Wear Wahoo?" "People, Not Mascots." "The Louis Sockalexis Myth Is a Lie."

The ballclub — and most of its fans — is not hearing any of it.

"I love Chief Wahoo," Diane McMaster-Murphy exclaims, smacking a Peep off the post where a protester had placed it. "I'm an American," adds the 57-year old white lady from Akron, adding a twist of patriotism to an otherwise indiscernible molecule of logic.

Six and a half decades after its creation, the Chief remains the only professional sports logo in the Western world that caricaturizes a race of people. But in the land of Wahoo, no reason is still reason enough.


To many if not most Clevelanders, Chief Wahoo has never represented a race of people at all, but a benevolent symbol of the magic of those first trips to the ballpark: a smiling, slugging alien angel of joy. Given these positive associations, many find it especially easy to ignore that Wahoo was created in an era when popular attitudes toward minorities were quite different than they are today.

The symbol first appeared in 1947, the creation of Walter Goldbach, a 17-year-old draftsman hired by Indians owner Bill Veeck to design a mascot that "would convey a spirit of pure joy and unbridled enthusiasm." Goldbach's version had yellow skin and a phallically prominent nose. By 1951, the figure made its debut on Indians uniforms, updated with fire-engine-red skin and a more giddy, less imbecilic grin. Sportswriters provided the name "Chief Wahoo."

Goldbach has said that he had a hard time "figuring out how to make an Indian look like a cartoon.

"It was the last thing on my mind that I would offend someone," he added.

But to Dr. David Pilgrim, an expert in racial imagery, the symbol is a "red Sambo" that hardly differs from the caricatures of blacks popular in the Jim Crow era in which Wahoo was created — a time when such depictions of minority races were popularly used to inflame prejudice and justify discriminatory laws and behavior.

A sociology professor at Ferris State University in Michigan, Pilgrim is also the founder and curator of the school's Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. There, an astonishing 7,000 piece (and growing) collection of artifacts depicts the history of racist portrayals of minorities in American popular culture.

"These were caricatures with a purpose: to legitimize patterns of prejudice, discrimination, and segregation," says Pilgrim. "These caricatures don't just exist to exist; they both reflect and shape attitudes toward a group."

Pilgrim explains how the exaggerated features serve their discriminatory purpose by emphasizing the differences of the depicted race, thereby reinforcing the idea that the caricaturized race is inferior. He cites a passage from renowned author Julius Lester that gets right to the point, underscoring Wahoo protester Villafane's concern for her grandchildren:

"When I read Little Black Sambo as a child," Lester wrote, "I had no choice but to identify with him because I am black and so was he ... [With this image], society had made it clear to me [that the exaggerated features] represented my racial inferiority — the black, black skin, the eyes shining white, the red protruding lips. I did not feel good about myself as a black child looking at those pictures."

Pilgrim has made Chief Wahoo a centerpiece of the Jim Crow Museum's traveling exhibit on racist Native American imagery.

"You don't have to have spent your life analyzing these images to know that it's a harsh caricature," he says. "It either belongs in the garbage can, or some setting where it can be used to make us better — not on a baseball cap. If images don't matter, we should just shut our eyes."


For more than three decades, Bob DiBiasio has faced much of the criticism directed at the Indians over Chief Wahoo. The Tribe's VP of Public Relations sides with the countless fans who equate their mascot with unqualified passion for the game.

"When people look at Chief Wahoo, they think baseball," says DiBiasio. He calls the issue "one of individual perception" and explains that the franchise's "acknowledgment to the sensitivities involved" is evidenced by the fact that it "does not animate nor humanize the logo."

But the questions raised by the organization's stance on the symbol are as glaring as Wahoo's skin tone. If it's a matter of individual perception, why would the perception of those who "think of baseball" when they see the logo matter more than the perception of those who see a demeaning vestige of America's racist past? If the Indians recognize that it would be wrong to animate the logo, why keep it around at all?

The only substantive attempt the team makes to explain why its preferred perception is the correct one refers to the notion that the symbol is intended to honor the legacy of Native Americans.

"[The ballclub's view on Wahoo] is based on ... the historical significance as to how and why the Cleveland baseball team became the Indians," DiBiasio says. "The organization is proud to acknowledge and foster the legacy of Louis Francis Sockalexis, a star performer and first Native American to play professional baseball."

The only problem with the Tribe's singular stance is that it happens to be a load of crap.

When the Cleveland baseball club was renamed the Indians from the Naps in 1915, the Civil Rights Act was still 49 years from reality. Women could not vote, and racism against all minorities raged across America. It hadn't yet been three full decades since Custer's Last Stand, and the bloody Indian Wars continued in the American West into the 1920s.

"Why exactly would people in Cleveland — this in a time when Native Americans were generally viewed as subhuman in America — name their team after a relatively minor and certainly troubled outfielder?" asks Joe Posnanski, an award-winning sportswriter originally from Cleveland, now with USA Today.

Indeed, the man for whom the team is purportedly named played in only 96 games over three seasons, compiling just 367 at bats in his career — about half a season's worth for a typical ballplayer. But spotty performance wasn't the half of it.

"In all versions of the story, Sockalexis had to deal with horrendous racism, terrible taunts, whoops from the crowd, and so on," Posnanski wrote on his blog. Among those who cling to the feel-good story, "nobody ever mentions that Sockalexis may have ruined his career by jumping from the second-story window of a whorehouse. Or that he was an alcoholic."

In fact, according to NYU history professor Jonathan Zimmerman, "when alcoholism ended [Sockalexis'] brief major-league career, sportswriters reported that he had succumbed to an inherent 'Indian weakness.'"

Like Posnanski, Zimmerman calls the franchise's Sockalexis story "simply not true." He presents evidence that the franchise was renamed the Indians by sportswriters — not to honor Sockalexis, but to recall the sensational "fun" that he would inspire in crowds some 15 years earlier, when newspapermen would jokingly refer to the club as the "Cleveland Indians," even though it was formally named the Spiders.

Of course, it didn't hurt that the new name also happened to reinforce the image of Natives as anachronistic savages, the ballclub a fearsome force to be reckoned with. "In place of the Naps, we'll have the Indians, on the warpath all the time, and eager for scalps to dangle at their belts," wrote the Cleveland Leader in announcing the name change on January 17, 1915. In fact, none of the reports from the four daily Cleveland newspapers even mentions Sockalexis, but each is replete with negative stereotypes.

The Plain Dealer of the same day included a cartoon titled "Ki Yi Waugh Woop! They're Indians." The panel depicts, among other things, a frowning umpire scolding a Native American who says to him, "WUKWOG-O."

"When you talk to me, talk English, you wukoig," the ump replies. (The cartoon helpfully explains of "wukoig": "That last word is in Indian.")

There's also a section highlighting "New Rooting Lingo for the Fans," picturing a crowd of white men shouting noises like "WAHOO ZOEA-ERK!" and "SLKRO-WOW WAHOOOOOOO!"

When sociologist Ellen Staurowsky combed through the organization's promotional material from the time before the name change, she found no mention of Sockalexis until 1968, which was after Native Americans who had come to Cleveland under the federal relocation program began to protest the name and logo. "There is a vast difference between speculating the Indians were named after Sockalexis and making the claim the franchise now makes, that there was an intentional decision to honor him," Staurowsky told the Associated Press in 1999.

A close reading of the franchise's public statements on Wahoo seems to reveal its own awareness of the impossibility of denying the symbol's demeaning roots. DiBiasio never says outright that the franchise was named to "honor" Sockalexis, but rather just that the organization is "proud to acknowledge and foster [his] legacy." Even the bronze plaque of Sockalexis that hangs in the Indians Hall of Fame at Progressive Field carefully states that he "inspired the nickname used to this very day," glossing over the fact that this inspiration was the result of sportswriters' enjoyment of the sensation created by the vicious taunting he endured.


From the Stanford Indians (now Cardinal) in 1972 to the Miami University Redskins (now the Redhawks) in 1996 to the removal of the University of Illinois' Chief Illiniwek in 2007, activists have had remarkable success over the last 40 years in eradicating Native American symbolism from athletic departments nationwide. In 2010, Wisconsin legislators enacted a statewide ban on race-based nicknames, logos, and mascots, so that they may only be kept with the permission of the local Native tribe. Other states have joined Wisconsin in considering similar laws, and the list of high schools and colleges that have banned Native names and mascots numbers in the hundreds.

So why no traction with Wahoo, a symbol arguably much more offensive than any of the rest? Call it a unique inertia, created by a combination of Native Americans' status as a tiny, relatively invisible minority; the traditional "cowboys and Indians" view of Natives' status as an enemy of American civilization; the innocent, if ignorant, elements of Cleveland's attachment to Wahoo as a symbol of a beloved baseball team; and a relative lack of awareness of the symbol's racist origins. Of course, there's also the fact that professional teams, unlike colleges and high schools, are owned by private individuals, most of whom happen to be white.

David Currie, a 73-year-old Euclid resident who identifies himself as "a WASP through and through," joins the Wahoo protesters every year because he believes the symbol is an embarrassment to his hometown. You'd never see a team called the Cleveland Negros or the Cleveland Jews, accompanied by a caricature of the race, he says. "There's no difference between blackface and redface. One is just as wrong as the other. It's just that here there's nobody to beat you up for wearing the redface."

Wahoo, incidentally, is all but nonexistent in the Indians' spring-training home of Goodyear, Arizona, where the Native American population is significantly higher than it is on the modern-day shores of Lake Erie.

Indeed, Ohio is home to zero Native reservations, compared to 11 in neighboring Michigan. Nationwide, full-blooded Native Americans make up slightly less than 1 percent of the U.S. population — not exactly the groundswell of numbers needed to shake up a nation's way of thinking.

"We're the minority of minorities," says Jim Farrar, the Cherokee from Michigan who co-founded that state's Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media. Each year, he supports Wahoo protesters on Opening Day, and each year he finds few locals of similar heritage. "They're not physically here," he says. "You're not looking at them face-to-face. It's easy to pretend that they don't exist."

But it wasn't always that way. The call for Chief Wahoo's head reached its peak in the mid-1990s, as the Indians prepared their move to brand-new Jacobs Field and renewed enthusiasm for the team was paying off with constant sellouts and a long-overdue return to postseason glory.

Local activists including Juanita Helphrey, a native of the Hidatsa Nation and a leading voice for racial justice for the United Church of Christ, capitalized on the momentum. They ensured that the 35-foot-tall Chief Wahoo that for decades had been perched atop Municipal Stadium would not be moved to the new park. (The statue, since refurbished, now serves as an exhibit at the Western Reserve Historical Society, where guests are encouraged to write their feelings about Wahoo on Post-It notes.)

In 1997, Helphrey and five others were arrested for burning a Wahoo effigy outside the gates of the World Series. The charges were eventually dropped, and Helphrey has since retired.

"When Juanita was leading the efforts, we had some leverage," recalls Charlene Higginbotham, a fellow UCC member from Cleveland Heights. "We would get more time on TV and in the newspapers. It's much harder for them to ignore you when you have a Native American sitting across the table saying, 'This does not honor me or my people.'"

At one point, then-Tribe owner Dick Jacobs agreed to talks about Wahoo. A local artist even presented the organization with proposals for a non-caricaturized representation to replace Wahoo.

"There was a new stadium, a new owner, a new name for the facility, so we figured it would be an especially good time for a new image," says Reverend Marvin McMickle, a prominent local pastor and a member of the Gateway board of directors at the time. In 2000, the office of then-Mayor Michael White issued a statement decrying Wahoo as an "offensive, racist symbol," and discussed a proposal to ban the logo from all city-owned property. But the anti-Wahoo fire quickly cooled off without explanation.

"We eventually received the same general blasé response [from the organization] about how beloved an image — or at least how popular an image — it is with baseball fans," McMickle remembers. "But why should that matter? If it's wrong, it's wrong."


Those who love Wahoo often point to the anti-Wahoo movement's lack of success as justification for the Chief's continued survival.

Many, including outspoken sports talker Chuck Booms of 92.3-FM WFAN, cite a controversial 2002 poll by Sports Illustrated, which concluded that five out of six Native American respondents believe teams "should not stop using Indian nicknames, mascots, characters and symbols."

"Eighty-three percent of Indians on reservations said leave it alone, so leave it alone!" Booms shouted during a recent radio debate on the issue. To Booms, opposition to Chief Wahoo is "liberal nonsense."

Yet others are less convinced by the SI poll. "If you're going to trust a Sports Illustrated report on Native American issues, you might as well have Redbook report on the logging industry," says Farrar.

A group of 34 sociologists who organized to immediately challenge the survey pointed to other studies that reached opposite results. They also note that SI never disclosed how the poll was conducted, how participants were recruited, or what questions were asked. And more pertinent to Wahoo: There's nothing contained in the SI report to suggest its poll results distinguished between team names and symbols, nor between caricatures like Wahoo and more realistic representations. In fact, the report's penultimate paragraph concludes by noting that "many Native Americans find the mascots and imagery more offensive than the names."

Many anti-Wahoo activists are loath to engage any evidence of Native support for symbols like Wahoo. Andy Baskin, a morning personality at 92.3 and sports director at Cleveland's NewsNet5, recently spoke on his radio show about visiting a reservation in the Southwest and seeing children wearing Chief Wahoo hats.

"There were African Americans who were OK with sitting on the back of the bus too," Farrar responds.

"No minority is a monolithic group," adds Higginbotham. "It's hard enough to assimilate without taking on these battles." (Baskin, incidentally, has concluded that the Wahoo tradition is not one worth holding on to.)

Ferris State's David Pilgrim points out that the U.S. Constitution provides for a Bill of Rights and an independent judiciary precisely because of the problems with leaving certain issues to majorities, expressing his frustration with this fundamental element of protest dynamics. "There's only so much energy for these things when you're a member of the oppressed race," he says. "The dominant culture has all the advantages. The force we're fighting doesn't have to do anything but the same thing that it's always been doing."

Which makes these issues especially easy for politicians to ignore. When reached for comment, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson's office vaguely referred to an "indirect" role played by the mayor in the controversy over Chief Wahoo.

"We recognize there is a debate," says Ken Silliman, Jackson's chief of staff. "Whatever role we've played indirectly, I'm not in a position to comment on. But we are aware of the discussions throughout the community on this issue. There are many different ways to participate in a community dialogue. Our community relations office has participated and has played a role."

"There is no dialogue with the mayor's office," counters Ferne Clements of Cleveland's Kamm's Corners neighborhood, a white woman who coordinates the annual Opening Day protest in Cleveland. "And there won't be until the rest of us join in speaking out against this thing."


If Cleveland sports fans can count on anything, it is this: For the duration of Chief Wahoo's tenure with the Indians in the post-Civil Rights era, the city's teams have unequivocally sucked. Not just the Indians, but all of the major professional teams, including the Browns and Cavaliers.

Without recounting all the grisly details here, it's enough to note that these beloved franchises have not just lost badly, but in the most embarrassing and excruciating ways. And not just games, but homegrown superstars and entire teams, which were stolen away by greed and greener pastures.

Those troubled by the persistence of Wahoo can take heart that, even if the powers-that-be are consistently unresponsive, the team's lack of fortune during the Chief's tenure fosters hope that at least one higher power is on their side.

Superstition has played a prominent role throughout sports lore, from Boston's finally vanquished "Curse of the Bambino" to the Chicago Cubs' ongoing "Curse of the Billy Goat," which legions of fans blame for a collective 150-plus years of star-crossed baseball. Is a "Curse of Chief Wahoo" beyond the realm of possibility?

Here on the banks of the Cuyahoga (Iroquois translation: "Crooked River"), in the state of Ohio ("It is beautiful"), perched on what was sacred ground to Native Americans for thousands of years, the populace clings to the only sports logo in the Western world that caricaturizes an entire race of people, even amid cries that it dehumanizes them and trivializes their plight.

"It certainly flies in the face of 'love your neighbor as you love yourself,'" says McMickle.

But even if one doesn't buy into the basic principle of "do unto others" that underpins every major world religion, or even the concept of karma, everybody likes a good ghost story. And what's happened with Cleveland's sports teams over Wahoo's tenure could fairly be viewed as some of the best evidence there is of some kind of benevolent metaphysical order.

"It was white people who made Wahoo," explains Clements, "so it's up to us to get rid of it."

But in the end, there might be just one white person who matters.

"I can't believe that one rich man could make this thing go away and chooses not to," says Marjorie Villafane. She's referring to the Indians' current owner, Larry Dolan.

Dolan spoke in some detail on Wahoo during a 2006 interview with Dan Hanson of, in which he strongly suggested that the logo isn't going anywhere soon. He was responding to questions about whether the advent of the script "I" that's become increasingly prevalent on Indians uniforms signals a gradual phasing out of Wahoo.

"It's not true," said Dolan. "It's another marketing tool."

It does seem the Indians could use some more tools in their belt: Though Major League Baseball closely guards its revenue figures, on its 2010 list of the top 10 clubs "based on sales of all licensed products," the Indians were nowhere to be found.

"Around the country, places we go, I come in contact with Indian groups particularly at Indian casinos, and ask them about it," Dolan told Hanson. "No, they just don't have the problem."

No word on whether he has conferred on the issue with Natives who aren't casino owners entertaining an extremely wealthy guest who also happens to own the baseball team that wears Chief Wahoo on its uniforms. Through a spokesman, Dolan declined to be interviewed for this story.


Look at page A3 of today's PD," Euclid's David Currie wrote in an e-mail the day after taking part in the Progressive Field protest.

He was referring to a full-color, half-page advertisement placed by the Indians to drum up excitement for the new season. It features a young white boy wearing a Wahoo cap and holding a sign over his head containing a drawing of the logo inscribed with the words "Be a Believer!"

As slogans go, it serves as an apt reminder: Since 1964, the Curse of Chief Wahoo has given a championship-starved city as much to believe in as the Indians, Browns, and Cavaliers have.

"How can you argue with a religious icon?" Currie says. "Wahoo isn't going anywhere."

Peter Pattakos is a Cleveland attorney and author of the website

[email protected]

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